Joe College Meets the Prime Minister
That was my working title for the article you are about to read, and it was how I referred to the article when talking with my friends.
In 1978, I was an undergraduate student in the Independent Study program at Southeastern Massachusetts University in North Dartmouth, MA. My major was Communications with a minor in Education. I had successfully petitioned the school to let me take on a two-year, 12-credit project creating a media presentation on Mahatma Gandhi. Two semesters would be spent on research, and another two would be devoted to the writing and creation of the program.
During my research phase, I wrote an article in a Hindi newspaper telling people about my project. I asked for help with insights or anecdotes people might be willing to share. The response was overwhelming. One day I came home from school to find 128 pieces of mail waiting for me! Over the following weeks, I received books, tapes, photographs, and stories from Indians at home and abroad.
One letter I received was from a professor from the University of Bombay. He said India's Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, was scheduled to visit the U.S. in June. He pointed out that Prime Minister Desai had known Gandhi personally. He suggested I write the Ambassador of India and request a meeting with the Prime Minister to gather research.
Yeah, right. The leader of a sixth of the world's population will jump at the chance to meet ME, so I shrugged off the idea as absurd.
When I mentioned the letter to my older brother, Bob, he said, "So write him and ask! So what if he says no? At least you would have tried." Skeptically, I wrote the Ambassador of India and explained my project and my desire to meet with the Prime Minister of India.
Weeks later, I received his reply. Prime Minister Desai would be in Washington, D.C., with President Carter for two days and in New York for two days addressing the U.N. The bottom line was that the Ambassador would forward my request to the Prime Minister, but I shouldn't hold my breath. Instead, the Prime Minister's dance card was filled.
Then, about a month later, a fantastic thing happened. I got another letter from the Ambassador's office. It essentially said that the Prime Minister was interested in my project and would like more details. What motivated my interest in Mahatma Gandhi? What are my views of Gandhi? What do I see as the overall message of my project? After pacing frantically around my apartment, I sat down and wrote my heart out. After a few days, my reply was on its way.
Then things got interesting. I received a letter from the Ambassador's office telling me I could have seven minutes with the Prime Minister in Washington, D.C. I wrote back, explaining that I couldn't afford to get to Washington as a college student with as many part-time jobs as classes (I should have mentioned that all I drove was a motorcycle). I had requested to meet the Prime Minister when he was in New York City. I could get to New York.
On June 10th, I received a phone call from the Ambassador's office. Be at the United Nations Plaza Hotel at 7:45 tomorrow morning, June 11th. I would have not seven but three minutes to interview the Prime Minister. I immediately called Richard St. Aubin, a photographer who worked at the university. Richard had lived in New York City for many years and had friends with whom we could stay. He would photograph the interview and be willing to make the five-hour drive to New York City at a moment's notice. Richard picked me up two hours later, and off we went.
When I returned from the trip, many friends encouraged me to write an article about the experience for the school and local newspapers. I wrote a short essay and sent it to The Standard-Times, our local paper. The editor, James Ragsdale, called and suggested we meet at his office. He asked me to tell him about my experience meeting Prime Minister Desai. I went on and on about the experience and had him laughing and moving at times. Then he showed me his copy of my meager article and asked, "Why isn't that story here?" He said I had written my impression of a newspaper article. He suggested I go home and write the story I had just told him. That was the story he wanted to publish. So that is the story I wrote during the summer of 1978. I hope that you enjoy it.
By Rick Cormier
“The Prime Minister will see you now,” said the aide. I left my seat so mechanically that I almost forgot Richard was with me. When I reached the suite door, an agent, C.I.A. perhaps, stepped in front of me. “Hold it!” he said. "Open that up!" He pointed to the cassette compartment of my tape recorder.
“BWOOOOOOOOP!” Feedback echoed through the hall. My heart pounded. I had pushed the wrong button. When I finally managed to turn it off, I felt like an idiot. The agent examined the tiny cassette compartment with a chrome penlight and let me pass. Underneath the bulky recorder was a utility compartment big enough to store lunch for two, but I guess he didn’t notice. Instead, he checked Richard’s cameras with a thoroughness that was, at least, consistent.
With a quick sweeping motion of his hand, the aide gestured for me to enter the Prime Minister’s suite. Instead of being able to walk confidently yet casually into the room as I had hoped, I was nearly trampled by more than a dozen major television reporters and news anchors who were confidently and casually walking out. The bulky recorder was pulling hard on my arm. “What am I doing here?” I thought.
Months ago, I had requested this interview with eighty-two-year-old Morarji Desai, a remarkable man. After holding a civil service position with the British government in India for twelve years, he resigned his post in 1930 to join the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. After independence, Desai served in Nehru’s cabinet as Minister of Commerce and Industry and Finance Minister. He later served as Indira Gandhi’s Deputy Prime Minister until his retirement in 1969.
He became active again in 1975, protesting Indira Gandhi’s policies. She had Desai imprisoned for nineteen months as an enemy of the state, along with many other eminent Indian public figures who would form the Janata Party, which in 1977 was voted into power.
Desai eats two meals a day consisting simply of cheese, fruit, and milk. When he wakes at 4:00 each morning, he meditatively spins cloth, a practice made popular by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence from Britain. His close association with Mahatma Gandhi was what I was interested in. Desai’s opinions could enhance my research. It seemed far-fetched that the Prime Minister of India would agree to meet with a twenty-four-year-old undergraduate student to talk about Gandhian philosophy but there I was. Only a week ago, the date was set for June 12th. Only yesterday, I was told to be at the United Nations Plaza Hotel, N.Y., today (June 11th ) at 7:45 a.m. I wondered now if one hour of sleep, a cup of coffee, and a half-pack of cigarettes had gotten me through this.
When we arrived at the 28th floor of the hotel, we met our first Consulate Aide. He was a short, middle-aged Asian Indian with black-framed glasses and a slightly limp turban. He rushed about like a housewife trying to coordinate a dinner for thirty.
“I’m Rick Cormier,” I said, “and this is Richard St. Aubin, who will be photographing the interview.” “Yes, come this way,” he replied hastily. I assumed he was taking us directly to the Prime Minister, but instead we entered a small hotel room filled with aides. “Have a seat,” said our host, pointing to an unmade bed behind us.
“Could you tell us the proper way to greet the Prime Minister?” Richard asked. “You have not looked into this matter beforehand? The aide replied clutching frantically at his hands. “I am not authorized to advise you in such matters.” He turned to leave and then turned back again. “Did you bring your suits?” he asked. Richard and I looked at each other. We both wore dress slacks. I wore a print shirt opened at the collar. Richard wore a white shirt and tie. “No,” I answered calmly. “This is what we are wearing.” He nodded quickly, then scurried away, and I buttoned my collar.
When the last of the reporters had cleared the doorway, I entered the suite. Dozens of thick electrical and video cables covered the floor between me and the Prime Minister, who could be seen in an adjoining room. Another aide came from behind and with a wide circling motion of his arm gestured for me to cross the less-scattered cables to my left. As I did, a television cameraman began blindly gathering the cables with such speed that they squirmed and slithered around my feet like snakes. I was relieved the Prime Minister hadn’t seen me as I hopped across the room.
‘GOOD MORNING MR. PRIME MINISTER’
Desai was sitting on a couch talking to someone in Hindi. As I approached him he smiled pleasantly, stood and extended his hand. “Good Morning Mr. Prime Minister,” I said shaking his hand. He bowed his head graciously without a word.
When we sat, he was handed a folder with my name on it. While he read its contents I realized I had forgotten to bring a mike stand. I would have to hold the mike in one hand and my notes in the other. Awkward. I made myself ready quickly. I had been told that I would have three minutes with him. As he casually read page after page in the folder, I wondered whether the meter was running. Finally, he finished and looked at me and smiled again. It was okay to begin.
“To what extent does the Gandhian philosophy play a part in the unity of the Janata Party?” I asked.
“To the extent the Janata Party has accepted it.” he replied.
I hesitated. “And to what extent is that?”
“Well, we have accepted it, but we have to work it out now,” He replied. “The main thrust of Mahatma Gandhi’s policy and philosophy lies in right means, first of all…” As he spoke, he looked directly at me. I wanted to return the eye contact, but I was concerned about the recording level and what my next question would be. The more I tried to focus my attention, the more fidgety I became.
“Whatever you do,” he continued, “…must be done by right means, peacefully, without injury to other persons. The content of it can be measured only by how it benefits the poorest man and how it brings to man his human qualities; that is, he lives for others and not only for himself.”
Desai’s voice was soft. His words were precise and evenly paced. In his presence was a profound feeling of peacefulness which somehow affected the atmosphere in the room. It soon affected me also. In his eyes was the message that everything was okay. We were just two people talking. Behind me I could hear the clicking of Richard’s camera.
“Gandhi recommended celibacy,” I said, “…as a means of preserving spiritual, mental and physical energy…”
He anticipated my question. “As I say often, I believe in self-control, but how many people will practice self-control? In America how many will you find?” He threw his hands in the air. “I don’t know that I’ll find half-a-dozen people!” he said with a grin. “Then how am I to preach it to them? What if population does become a liability when means of production are not available?”
“You’ve got to control it, but you’ve got to enable the people to do it themselves voluntarily, not by coercion.”
“Population control also preserves energy,” he added. “If you’ve a small family, you can concentrate your energy to make their lives better. But if you’ve a large family, how are you preserving your energy? You’re wasting it and broadcasting it.”
I asked his views on non-violent resistance.
“Violence and non-violence both are there in the world. If there is violence, everybody is not going to be non-violent.” His expression became dead sober as he went on. “But even if you are violent, you must not do it with any passion, you must not do it with attachment. When you do it for selfishness or to hurt somebody, it harms you. But if you do it in order to save someone, and you are not able to do it otherwise, then it is a matter of duty. Then it will not bind or harm you.”
“How do you feel about Gandhi’s claim that ‘with the loss of India to non-violence the last hope of the world will be gone’?” I asked.
“India must believe in non-violence. If India doesn’t believe in it, who will? It has come from India. Maximum work should be done that way. But when it comes to a position where you are not able to do it, then he (Gandhi) also said that to run away is cowardice.”
“Unless violence decreases,” he went on, “how is man to arrive at his real mission? If ordinary people take more and more to non-violence, the world will develop properly. But it’s a long process. It can’t be done in a year or two.”
“I’ve heard it said that non-violent resistance worked for India only because the British were civilized people. Do you see any truth in that?” I asked.
“Non-violence changes even lions and tigers.” His face glowed as if the thought was an old friend. “It’s not a thing that can work only in India; it can work anywhere provided there are a certain number of people who will do it.”
“Would non-violent resistance have worked for the Jews during World War II?”
“If they had the spirit,” he replied. “But their spirit didn’t come so quickly. Ultimately they were killed, but if they had given resistance with smiling faces, even Hitler might have been changed. If I have got that much non-violence, then in my presence that person will not be violent.”
“Peace can only come when nobody wants to lead somebody else,” said Desai. “When the biggest countries give up the idea of leading other people and dominating other people and they get the idea of utilizing their strength to benefit other people, as equals, not in a patronizing spirit but as a beauty, then peace will come.”
There was a foreshadowing in that statement. The following day Desai would tell President Carter and the U.N. of India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Disarmament Pact until the major powers were willing to sign it also.
“Thank you very much for your time Mr. Prime Minister,” I said turning off the recorder. He smiled and nodded. We rose and shook hands, and I turned to leave. Richard had to pack up his cameras, so I waited by the door. An agent came and stood beside me.
After three or four minutes, Desai left the sitting room, which had become crowded with aides. He walked over to me with his hands clasped nonchalantly behind his back.
“You see, Gandhi found Truth…” he began. I thought of turning on the recorder again but decided not to. The question-and-answer session was over. This was just he and I talking. CLICK! Richard was taking pictures again.
I recall only pieces of the conversation that followed but we talked about Gandhi some more and about great men in general. I mentioned Buddha and he mentioned Thoreau. He felt sorry Thoreau didn’t receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. He asked about the books I had read was interested in my research.
“Have you visited India?” he asked. Just as I was about to answer, a man rushed over to Desai and began bowing and vigorously jerking his clasped hands in an upward motion from Desai’s pelvis to his chin in a caricature of the traditional Hindu greeting. “Mr. Prime Minister…” he said nearly out of breath, “I’ve come all the way from Such-and-Such and I’m so pleased to see you, I’m so very pleased to see you, I’ve come all the way from Such-and-Such…” Desai turned calmly toward the man and listened. As Richard and I prepared to leave once again, Desai slowly raised his outstretched palm to gently silence his admirer. He turned to us and said goodbye. I was more than satisfied.
Between the twenty-five minutes of taped conversation and our conversation afterwards, we had spent, not three, but forty minutes together. Nevertheless my mind filled with questions I wished I had asked.
In the hall agents were still lurking about; the aides were still running around. “Life in the fast lane!” said Richard, grinning as we got into the elevator.
My feelings exactly.
1. The reporters and news anchors who were leaving the Prime Minister’s suite as I was going in included John Chancellor, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. Other faces were familiar but we couldn’t put faces to names at the time. They all had come to ask Desai how India would vote regarding Nuclear Arms proliferation. Ironically, not only were they all scooted out when their time was up, he refused to reveal to them how India would vote whereas he explained his vote to me in detail.
2. Though he refused to sign the agreement until the three major powers signed it, he did assure President Carter and the U.N. that India would "not manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons even if the rest of the world did so.”
3. Desai is credited for having healed relations between India and Pakistan considerably. He did away with many of Indira Gandhi’s constitutional amendments which had stripped the rights of citizens and he made amendments which prevented any future government from misusing National Emergency. The Janata Party, however, was unstable and began to divide, hampering Desai’s effectiveness. Desai was too conservative for many. One journalist accused him of having secret dealings with the C.I.A.. This was never proven and Desai denied it to his death but it damaged his reputation. He resigned from office and from politics in 1979.
4. In the first draft of my article (the brief one) I left out Desai’s comment about the Jews under Hitler. James Ragsdale, the newspaper editor asked me why. I told him I left it out because I didn’t want to hurt or offend anyone. He pointed out that it was not my job to edit or censor the Prime Minister of India. My job was to report the experience. Give the reader the information and let them draw their own conclusions. Quite a teacher, that Mr. Ragsdale.
5. The most memorable aspect of Morarji Desai, which I under-appreciated at age 24, was his aura of serenity and kindness. At the beginning of our talk, I was very nervous. I was way over my head in this situation. When I looked at Desai, his entire demeanor somehow communicated that everything was fine… there was nothing to be nervous about.
Throughout our talk Desai’s frantic and nervous consulate aides were vying for his attention. Understandable, since our conversation had gone way beyond the three minutes that were scheduled. The aides’ body language was comical. While Desai was talking with me, an aide would pop out and move toward him with wringing hands, wearing a look that implied that the interruption was of grave importance and urgency. Desai would slowly and gently lift the flat of his hand toward the would-be interrupter who would melt apologetically into the background. Desai made that gesture with a kindness in his eyes. He did it with a look that said, “I appreciate your concern but I’m on top of this and everything is as it should be.”
Nearly thirty years later, that aura is what I remember best about meeting Morarji Desai.
6. On April 10, 1995, Morarji Desai died at the age of 99.
Thank you for your interest in my work!
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